Lyrebirds – Accidental Historians

Archibald James Campbell 1853-1929. Silver gelatin print.

Nature’s Living Tape Recorders May Be Telling Us Secrets
Robert Krulwich

In 1969, Neville Fenton, an Australian park ranger, recorded a lyrebird singing a song that sounded very much like a flute, a flute being played by a human. After much sleuthing, Mr. Fenton discovered that 30 years earlier, a farmer/flute player had lived near the park and played tunes to his pet lyrebird. That lyrebird downloaded the songs, then was allowed to live wild in the park.

Phrases from those flute songs apparently became part of the local lyrebird songbook. A scholar named Norman Robinson figured out that the songs wild lyrebirds were singing in 1969 were modified versions of two popular tunes from the 1930s, “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance.”

When the BBC’s David Attenborough ran into a lyrebird deep in the Australian woods, the bird not only sang the songs of 20 other forest birds, it also did a perfect imitation of foresters and their chainsaws, who apparently were getting closer. That same bird made the sound of a car alarm.
These birds were, in effect, recording the sounds of their own habitat destruction.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. amaziing story! I found you through Paintlater blog. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog. Your statement on Gavatar was very intriguing.

    • It’s a heartbreaking one, isn’t it. And encompasses, in a desperately awful & ironic way, what’s happening to the world.
      Thank you very much for digging into the blog. I sometimes wonder how much people care to absorb . .

      And I’m not being polite in an effort to reciprocate when I say that those are the most delicately, elegantly drawn deer I’ve ever seen. So graceful–the strokes remind me of a picasso drawing I love of a mother & infant; a little more broken -appropriately.
      And the photographs of reflections are lovely.
      I spent hours & hours, a few years ago, trying to grab light refracted onto my walls through window glass & blinds –with a cheap cellphone —And my eyes betray me more with every passing year- so I have to reconcile myself to waiting for someone else to capture what I wish I could.

      Thank you for making a connection.

  2. It’s the blessing and the curse of us humans to be able to view things historically, isn’t it? We know, or we think we know, what the logging saw etc. represent. Though it’s part of our human arrogance to think that the sounds the lyre bird picks up are part of a manifest destiny. The lyre birds may well survive us, and future Martian archaeologists may wonder where the birds picked up such mechanical sounds – and imagine a whole theory of mechanically able birds.

    I’d imagine, to the lyre bird, the car alarm or the logging saws are fun new sounds to add to his repertoire. After a bit of practice, he starts attracting all the local avant-garde lady lyre birds with his zany modern alternative to the mundane woody warbling of his pedestrian fellows. He’s suddenly Ziggy Stardust.

    • I take the word of scientists as to the impact of these things on the future. But what happens in the present makes me heartsick. A species may survive, but humans can’t seem to stop harassing creatures on every front and making their lives as difficult as possible.

      Only you could make me smile at the thought of the confusion caused to future academics by the seemingly mechanically able lyrebird (the name could suddenly represent something entirely different from its origin),
      and strange proud birds flaunting their sophisticated new sounds, the John Cages (heh) of birdsong.

  3. Don’t know if you know the work of David Rothenberg – playing clarinet to nightingales in Treptower Park etc., but you might enjoy his work on lyre birds:

    • Way back toward the beginning of our conversation . . . But the truth is that I don’t know his stuff much beyond knowing of it.
      “Long ago, in a secondhand shop I found a book called The Book of Music & Nature, edited by David Rothenberg & Marta Ulvaeus, which came with a cd—but I didn’t see Marcus Coates in the anthology of essays . . . “

      • I remember you saying that – and I think Marcus Coates is too young to be in a long ago book. That’s the part I’d registered. I’d missed the detail of you naming David Rothenberg as the editor. I think you’d enjoy him speaking about cicadas here – partly because, as he says, he is ‘one sound among millions’ –

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